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A business conference with an anti-business streak

Business conferences are about growth and profits and networking. That wasn’t totally true with the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC), held this week in San Francisco.

“Legalization isn’t about money. It’s about personal liberty,”is how founder Alex Rogers started the event. The first day of programming followed that idea, with not one business speaker on the schedule.

Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University took on a couple of well-worn phrases from marijuana critics.

He admits, “marijuana is a gateway drug” to harder stuff. “Most cocaine and heroin users started with marijuana.” But, Hart adds, critics also need to realize that “it’s also true that the vast majority of marijuana users do not go on to hard drugs.”

Travel writer Rick Steves told attendees, “In parts of Europe a joint is as exciting as a can of beer.”  Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic have full legalization, he says, with lower crime rates than most of the rest of Europe, and certainly better than the US.

“Americans aren’t supposed to be dictated to from the top down,” declared Dana Rohrabacher, long-time member of Congress, and former Reagan speechwriter. He thinks money going to enforce drug laws should be redirected to education, instead of incarceration.

Ethan Nadelmann of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) gave a rousing talk that did mention business, but in a negative way.

“Big for-profit companies have been unleashed by some legislation,” and they’re working within pro-marijuana principles to “shut out the idealists.”

A couple of writers looked into their crystal ball to predict business trends. Ricardo Baca, creator of The Cannabist blog for The Denver Post, sees tourism as a great business opportunity. The price of cannabis will drop further now that it’s legal there, but people will still want to come to Colorado to experience it. He compares it to California wine country. “In Napa Valley the money is in tourism, not grapes.”

Author Doug Fine also dismissed the marijuana plant. He predicts hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, will surpass it in the next 10-20 years. His analogy: “Coors is big, but Exxon-Mobil is bigger.” The future is always in energy, and hemp can be used for so much more than macramé and hand crèmes.

Business conferences are also about “building the brand” these days, so that was a recurring topic. Branding is already proving valuable in the legal states, according to attorney Hilary Bricken. That sentiment is echoed by Troy Dayton of the ArcView Group, which specializes in investments in the cannabis field. “The value is going to be in brands,” as the price of cannabis drops.

One of the last speakers, as if confirming the opening remarks by Alex Rogers, also touched on the fact that most people in this industry aren’t just in it for the money. Aundre Speciale, from Americans for Safe Access (ASA), offered this suggestion for success: “Love is the best business model.”  Her comment was greeted with enthusiastic applause.